In the notorious movie Mean Girls, one of the main characters’ mom tries desperately to be chic and trendy like her teenage daughter. The mom dresses in pink sweatsuits and serves the girls martinis. She then says,
I just want you to know: if you ever need anything, don’t be shy, okay? There are no rules in the house. I’m not like a regular mom, I’m a cool mom. Right, Regina?
(To which her daughter Regina responds, “Please stop talking.”)
In high school, I had a teacher who was eerily similar to this mom–except nowhere as cheery and happy-go-lucky. But they both shared that longing wish of being “in” with the cool kids.
Let’s call her Ms. Q.
Ms. Q taught physics. From day 1, I could tell something was off. Ms. Q never smiled. She greeted everyone with her mouth in a flat line. She also liked to deadpan…except I’m pretty sure deadpans are supposed to be funny, and hers were not the definition of funny.
You’re thinking, Okay, so what? There are serious teachers everywhere. Doesn’t mean she’s incompetent. And how is she like Regina’s mom from Mean Girls?? Hold your horses.
As the semester crawled by, we noticed Ms. Q’s strange quirks. One, she had a strange sense of humor. Apparently raising your eyebrow at students while they’re talking makes you intimidating . . . and thereby gains you respect from other students. Ms. Q knew she was the authority of the classroom, and she kept that power astonishingly well by being blunt and forthright. She wasn’t afraid to insult a student in front of everyone. She’d regularly pick on this one football player who wasn’t that good at physics, telling him to “shut up” and calling him “wow, what an idiot!” The scary part is, everyone else either thought it was funny or were too afraid to speak out. I guess it helped that the football player was humble and played along, but seriously?
Two, Ms. Q played favorites to her advantage. If you’re an outspoken, well-liked student, she’ll find ways to compliment you in front of the class multiple times a week. If you take the time to chat with her regularly, she’ll automatically see you as a friend, assigning you as her unofficial BFF. When the class is working on some problems, she’ll come by your desk and make a show of striking up conversation about the latest movies or hit songs, ignoring the students right next to you. She’ll also add you on Facebook, which I thought was one of those ‘grey areas’ in school policies . . .
Add everything together, and soon you have a class of students who are
1) intimidated by Ms. Q because they don’t ever want to be ostracized by her and treated like the football player was, and
2) eager to please Ms. Q and feeling flattered when she singles them out as someone she favors.
It’s common psychology. Say you have a ratings game and assign each of your acquaintances a number from 1 to 10 based on how cool you think they are. The ones with the highest numbers become flattered and endorse the system, whereas the ones with the lower numbers become less self-confident and are afraid to speak out.
Okay, okay, so how is she a bad TEACHER then? Aside from all the favoritism and intimidation, she still teaches the material well, right?
Um, no. By the time she’s established the boundaries of the class (i.e. which students are her favorites and which students are to be ostracized), she’ll keep those boundaries for the rest of the year. One morning, a friend of mine went into her classroom before school for some help with a physics problem. Ms. Q was there with several of her favorites. She glared at my friend with that same flat expression she’s had since the beginning of the year, and told him she was too busy at the moment and to come back later.
Was she busy? Ms. Q went right back to having a conversation about cats with her favorites, while sipping a cup of Starbucks mocha.
Another time, I tried to show her a design of a T-shirt I made for the class, and she rebuffed me in front of the entire class. The story goes like this:
It was tradition for AP classes to make class T-shirts, and so I came up with a design. My friends had all loved it and encouraged me to show Ms. Q in class. I walked up, asked her if she’d like to see my design, and held my paper out for her to see . . . to which she held her hands up, looked away, and said, “I’m not responsible for these.”
Note I was standing literally 7.5 inches from her, and the paper was right under her crooked nose. She could’ve glanced at the design and told me she didn’t like it. She could’ve just taken the paper, took one cursory look, and handed it back. Instead, she refused to look and told me to show it to *insert name of Favorite Student #2,* whom she told me was “the T-Shirt Design Coordinator.”
Later, I spoke to that student, who gave me a surprised look and said, “Wait, I’m the T-Shirt Design Coordinator? What’s that?” Turns out Ms. Q made up the title on the spot to avoid looking at my design.
Yeah, thanks a lot, Ms. Q. You’re truly a role model, that you are.
4 years later, I see that Ms. Q has added all my high school classmates on Facebook and is still bribing students for Starbucks gift cards. I think now’s the time to say, if I were to choose between Regina’s mom and Ms. Q, well, that’s a no-brainer.